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Sonoma’s Carneros Bistro belongs back in the spotlight

Set on nearly 10 acres at Broadway and Napa Road on the southern edge of downtown Sonoma, The Lodge at Sonoma has been a Wine Country fixture since it opened in 2001. I drive by it often, and always think “breakfast.”

That’s because I always enjoy superb morning meals at its Carneros Bistro & Wine Bar – divine carnitas chilaquiles ($17), rotisserie chicken-sweet potato-pepper hash slathered in chipotle hollandaise ($18), heirloom apple pancakes studded with Hobbs’ bacon bits and doused in bourbon butter ($16) … I’m craving the stuff as I write this.

It’s a strange connection for me, because the Bistro, a fine-dining restaurant, really, has been home to several high-profile chefs over the past decade, and used to be one of my favorite dinner spots. But these last three years, since chef Andrew Wilson left for Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, the Marriott Renaissance-owned property has been a culinary cricket zone. These days, the new, “quieter” talent in charge is Jeffrey Libunao, an industry relative-newcomer who previously worked at JW Marriott San Francisco and The Beverly Hills Hotel, after training at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts-Pasadena.

Except now, after a few revisits, Carneros Bistro is back on my radar. Chef Libunao may be low profile, but that’s because he’s keeping his focus on the kitchen, preparing first-rate California cuisine fed by a wood-fired grill and oven. Breakfast still blows me away, and while I haven’t been in for lunch, if it’s anywhere as good as dinner, this could be a three-meal-a-day destination for me.

Things get off to a nice start with warm bread and butter. Complimentary bread service is a small luxury that seems to be going by the wayside, but I so appreciate the nibble to go with a pre-meal cocktail or glass of wine from the 400-plus Sonoma County bottle list.

The Farmers Market salad is a must, fed in part by the restaurant’s on-site garden — you can peek at the beds through the French doors near the back of the dining room. Ingredients change frequently, and I’m very happy with my winter toss of local lettuces, sylvetta (wild arugula), butternut squash chunks, crunchy pepitas, feta and marinated red onions in a mild citrus sherry vinaigrette ($12). A chilly day calls for soup, too, and the mushroom blend hits the spot — rich, earthy, and dotted with spiced crème fraiche and basil oil lending a bright zing ($10).

What restaurant doesn’t have Brussels sprouts these days, but the version here is creative; the crisp-edged petals interlaced with apple and drizzled in a marvelous sweet-salty-sour honey soy vinaigrette ($10). My server tells me it’s a best-seller, and I can taste why. I’m impressed with the wood-grilled octopus, as well — the tender, barely smoky seafood gets a fiery sweet boost from chipotle crema and honey soy gastrique, while the accompanying warm potato salad is kissed with saffron atop a bed of peppery arugula ($16).

There’s too much smoke on the smoked baby beets, for my taste (though I don’t care for smoked flavors in general); the veggies are a bit harsh against a mound of silky burrata, though accents of orange, red onion, mint and pistachio are brilliant ($12).

Everyone loves the Bistro’s flatbreads, my server says, and I’m happy with the thin, crisp mushroom model, finished with sylvetta, a bit of tart marinated onion and a crowning touch of intensely tangy Taleggio DOP cheese ($16).

Among the eight entrees, expensive beef takes center stage on the current menu, including a 7-ounce filet mignon fancied up with Midnight Moon cheese-spiked Mornay sauce ($47), flat iron steak frites ($37), and a Wagyu ribeye plated with maitake mushrooms, carrot ginger puree, black garlic and truffle vinaigrette ($53). I spend my pennies on very good braised short ribs and black garlic sautéed mushrooms over housemade spaghetti slicked with crème fraiche, a touch of aged balsamic and grana padano ($36).

Still, I find myself longing for another meat dish from an earlier menu, the wild boar ragout that smothered pappardelle and wild mushrooms — a simple shaving of Parmesan and it was consummate comfort ($33). I preferred the earlier version of wood rotisserie half-chicken, as well, uncomplicated with crispy Brussels sprouts, Yukon mash, and savory bacon pan jus ($31), since there’s too much going on with the current bird recipe done with mole sauce, lime pan jus, sweet peppers, aji verde and Okinawan (sweet purple) potatoes ($31).

Desserts are no afterthought here. Heirloom apple tart is a fun creation, artfully decorated with buttermilk ice cream, miso caramel, oat crumble and an apple chip ($9), while Cookies & Cream cheesecake gets a playful accent of white chocolate raspberry crunch ice cream ($10).

With food this nice, the décor could use some updating. The last major renovation was in 2007, and while the open kitchen fronted by a long bar still lends a vibrant mood, the rest of the large, rather plain space feels banquet-ish with tables lined up in rows.

Regardless, now as I drive by The Lodge, I’ll be thinking a new thought. “All good, all day and night.”

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.